Better Coaching

Leadership Excellence

by Marshall Goldsmith

In my work with leaders, I find that one common complaint of direct reports is that their leaders do a poor job of coaching. Yes, executives tend to be poor coaches.

They often neglect to schedule coaching time, and some leaders fear that coaching will come across as negative, alienating direct reports.

I suggest that you use an effective, time-efficient, six-question coaching process. Schedule a one-on-one, 30- minute dialogue with each direct report once a quarter. You and they are asked to: 1) make each question a dialogue, not a dictate, 2) focus on the future, not the past, and 3) listen to the other person’s ideas, try to implement what you can–and not try to prove the other person is wrong.

1. Where are we going? The first question deals with the big picture. You outline the larger organization’s direction, vision, goals and priorities, and then ask direct reports where they think the organization should be going. This question builds alignment and commitment to the vision.

2. Where are you going? This question surfaces the direct reports’ vision, goals, and priorities. Executives share their views as well. By the end of this discussion, the vision, goals and priorities of the direct reports should be aligned with the executive’s vision, and the goals and priorities of executives and direct reports should be aligned.

3. What is going well? Great coaches provide positive recognition for achievement. Assess what the direct reports and their teams are doing well, and ask, ‘What do you think that you and your team are doing well?’ Direct reports may feel under-appreciated because you don’t recognize their achievements.

In many cases, you would recognize these achievements if you knew what they were! By asking this question, you can celebrate performance wins that you may otherwise miss.

4. What are key suggestions for improvement? Here leaders begin by giving direct reports constructive suggestions for the future. These suggestions should be limited to key opportunities for improvement. Giving too many suggestions is almost as bad as giving none. Direct reports should listen to the suggestions with a focus on understanding, not judging what is said. Executives should come across as trying to help. Next, executives should ask, ‘If you were your own coach, what suggestions would you have for yourself?’ Then modify the areas of focus and attention as needed.

5. How can I help? After asking this question, listen to the suggestions! You can also participate in the dialogue by suggesting approaches and then asking, ‘Do you feel this approach will help you become more effective?’ The key to helping others improve is not to do more coaching, but to provide coaching to the right people on the right topics.

By asking this question, you can make more effective use of your time.

6. What suggestions do you have for me? This question changes the dynamics of the coaching process from a one-way monologue that focuses on, ‘Let me tell you what you can do to improve’ to a two-way dialogue: ‘Let’s try to help each other.’ Your reports are more willing to be coached by you if you are willing to be coached by them! In fact, by asking for suggestions, focusing on improving one or two key behaviors, and following up quarterly, you will be seen as dramatically increasing your leadership effectiveness.

Arrange for follow-up between sessions. At the end of each session, you might say, ‘I’ll have a dialogue with you once each quarter. I’ll cover what I think is most important and get your suggestions on what you think is most important. Please contact me at any time you need my help. I can’t promise I’ll be immediately available, but I promise to make your request a top priority.’ Great coaching happens within an agreement of mutual responsibility.

Use this six-question approach to become a more effective coach. Cover the most important topics regularly, and be available for each other for special situations. Few people need or want more coaching than this. This process provides you with a simple discipline to give people what they need, and receive what you need, in a way that respects your time and theirs.

Pay for Results
As an executive coach, I have a unique compensation system–I only get paid if my clients get better, meaning they achieve positive, measurable change in behavior, as judged by their key stakeholders. This process usually takes about 18 months and involves an average of 16 stakeholders.

I learned this ‘pay for results’ idea from Dennis Mudd, my boss 43 years ago. Growing up in Valley Station, Kentucky, my family was poor. Dad operated a small gas station. The old roof on our home had started to leak, so Dad hired Dennis Mudd to put on a new roof. To save some money, I worked as his assistant. Putting on a roof in mid-summer in Kentucky is no fun. I’ve never done any job (before or since) that required such physical exertion.

I was amazed at the care Mudd put into the laying of the shingles. He was patient with me as I made mistakes and helped me learn how to do the job right.

When Mudd presented my Dad with the invoice, he said, ‘Bill, please take your time and inspect our work. If you feel this roof meets your standards, pay us. If not, there’s no charge.’ Dad carefully looked at the roof, thanked us for a job well-done, and paid Mudd, who then paid me.

I’ll never forget this event. The Mudd family didn’t have any more money that we did. I thought, ‘Mr. Mudd may be poor, but he is a class act.’ How much would not getting paid have hurt Mudd? A lot. Not paying him would have meant that his family would not be eating well for the next two months. This sacrifice didn’t matter, though. His pride and integrity were more important than money.

Mudd never gave pep talks about quality or service. He didn’t use any fancy buzzwords. He didn’t have to– his actions communicated his values.

The next time you are working on a project, ask yourself, ‘What would happen to my commitment and behavior, if I knew that I was only going to be paid if I achieved results?’ Although I’ve received many honors for my work, I’ll never match the dedication to quality and integrity of Mr. Mudd. For the record, I have not been paid on a few assignments, and I’ve never asked for money I felt was undeserved. At the time, this caused me some pain and embarrassment, but I knew I’d still have a prosperous life.LE

Marshall Goldsmith is co-founder of Marshall Goldsmith Partners and author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Visit or

ACTION: Adopt a pay-for-performance system.